Thursday, August 5, 2010

To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

Vanity Fair has published online an article from its September 2010 issue Topic of Cancer by Christopher Hitchens, describing his life since he was diagnosed with cancer. Having lost a number of relatives due to cancer, including my parents, a number of his thoughts struck home:

  • the gradual dehumanization of the patient on the part of medical staff in the name of efficiency (taking vitals before speaking with you) or the loss of desire due to treatment to stay alive that played a key role in making you want to stay alive in the first place.
  • the new language, the unquestioned assumptions, the battle metaphors and the catchy slogans that are supposed to make dealing with cancer easier-I think most of it is to make things easier for the medical staff and the family of the patient (they don't)
  • the regrets (his to miss out on Kissinger and Ratzinger getting what he perceived as their just deserts my father's regret of not spending more tie with my sister or her children and my mother's wish that she hadn't said no to one last trip with her sister)
What does any of this have to do with nontheism?

Theists have a number of powerful ideas that they bring with them into a challenge like cancer (being a child of god, going to heaven, the suffering having an important purpose, etc) that enable them to reframe the experience and reduce some of its pain.

What does the nontheist bring with him or her? What "greater good" can be appealed to when spirits lag or fatigue overwhelms? One sees this in Hitchens' article-he provides readers with the record of a rationalist's thoughts during such a trial. To remove some of the mystery of suffering by describing it clearly, showing that one can still laugh, dream and keep contributing to the world. This idea of the world being one's memorial is a powerful one that can inspire great actions.

Many theists are offering prayers for Hitchens recovery and/or the saving of his soul. Some, likely out of a sense of compassion for him, and others possibly for the brownie points it would score for god if Hitchens "joined the other team". A god that would inflict cancer on a man to save him is a monster who bears more resemblance to the director of a gulag or an apparatchik in 1984 than any kind of loving parent.

So one hopes that no stories pop up about a "deathbed conversion", one almost hopes that Hitchen's llast days could be recorded to quash any such story. But if such a converision were to occur, it wouldn't change the reality that god does not exist, nor should it shake the nontheist's conviction that one can create meaning in the world through one's actions, and thus contribute to something greater than onesself. Hitchens is demonstrating that for us and we should be grateful to him.

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